Learning to Love the Poems of Edward Thomas

What makes them great.
May 21 2013 8:00 AM

Learning to Love the Poems of Edward Thomas

Amid war, James Wright’s favorite poet found peace in nature.

Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917), English poet and nature writer, c.1905
Edward Thomas

Courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons

I came to “There’s Nothing Like the Sun,” and Edward Thomas’ work in general, quite late, thanks to some of my more inane prejudices. The image I’d developed of Thomas’ poems (without having read many of them) didn’t hold much appeal, not for somebody like me, who has lived in cities all his life. I’ve always loved best the American poets who have been most tuned in to life in those places: Williams and O’Hara in particular. Thomas’ sensibility initially seemed to me the product of “cottage England.” His interest in the natural world seemed … well, sort of unrelenting.

Also, though Thomas is often linked to his friend and influence Robert Frost, for me his speech lacks Frost’s idiomatic salt. Thomas, in comparison, sounds quieter, more reticent—on the sentence level as much as the emotional. His melancholy makes for a tone that is less complex than Frost’s variable inflections: I hear it largely as a kind of elegiac tenderness. I remember thinking Thomas a bit monotonous, where Frost glinted with attitudes.

I found “There’s Nothing Like the Sun” more or less accidentally then, while flipping through an interview with James Wright 30 years after it was published. Thomas may have been Wright’s favorite poet; in a late notebook entry, Wright named 19 people that he would like to have spoken with about poetry, and Thomas tops the list.

Wright’s enthusiasm surely opened me to the poem, but having the poem pop up so unexpectedly probably made me more receptive to Thomas’ work—without my usual defenses, all of them founded on judgments that had been too easily arrived at.

Thomas began writing poetry late in his life, at the age of 36; less than four years later, in 1917, he was dead, killed at the Battle of Arras. This poem was written in 1915, after he’d been posted to Hare Hall Camp by the army, where he served as a map-reading instructor for recently commissioned officers.

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His early death, and the way it brought to an end an astoundingly rich (even if brief) run of poetry, certainly imbues the poem with urgency and pathos. Knowing the details of Thomas’ life, you’d have to be a neurological stone not to be moved a bit by it. But, as a reader, I’m fairly immune to the special pleadings of a poet’s biography. And, frankly, the opening sentence of this piece seems on the surface to embody a conventionally agreeable sentiment—not much to argue with there, one might hear oneself thinking. Neither does Thomas’ riffing off Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” add any great charge for me—though I do hear something of a challenge beneath the allusion, making clear that what is at stake is one man’s being, undeluded but amazed, clear-eyed.

“The feeling of presence,” said Robert Duncan, when asked what he wanted from poetry, “not concept.” Or, as Frank O’Hara put it, in his typically assertive way, “It’s only ever about being more alive.” That’s what moves me most here—one man’s waking up to the world.

I feel Thomas’ “presence”—his living, breathing responsiveness—most strongly in the middle part of the poem. It starts with the phrase “The south wall warms me,” as if the felt energy recorded there transmits itself into the complex perception that follows: a fleeting glimpse of one or two late-season plums falling from a branch at the same time as a few drops of rainwater, all shaken from the bough (it seems) by the mere singing of a bird.

These lines have something of the heightened perception of a great haiku. And their syntactical flex and compression, their rhythmic variability, are like nothing else in the poem. Elsewhere in the piece, Thomas’ handling of the pentameter is competent, if unremarkable; here, its arranged energy gives the perception immediacy and tension. Compare the passage with the prose entry in Thomas’ notebook that inspired the poem: “Sweet as last damsons on spangled tree when November starling imitates the swallow in sunny interval between rain and all is still dripping.” The difference between the two might be worth about a semester’s worth of craft talk to a young poet.

And that bird. That starling, “whistling what once swallows sang.” It’s a commonplace that starlings are mimics, but the line calls out to something genuinely mysterious. The stolen song seems to feed off the energy transmitted by the sun, the heat radiating off the wall. The sound arcs back in time and space—something old is touched in that moment, something familiar but made strange by theft—“once” and forever—something that would be just as at home in Chaucer or the English and Scots ballads. It’s uncanny. As alive then as Thomas himself must have always wanted to be.

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear David Rivard read “There's Nothing Like the Sun.” You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

“There’s Nothing Like the Sun”

There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and birds and beasts and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountainside or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,
Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,
Or January’s, or February’s, great days:
August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said—
Or, if I could live long enough, should say—
"There’s nothing like the sun that shines today."
There’s nothing like the sun till we are dead.

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